The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK or U.K.) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the northwestern coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland. Otherwise, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. The United Kingdom is a unitary parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned since 1952, making her the world's longest-serving current head of state. The United Kingdom's capital is London, a global city and financial centre with an urban area population of 10.3 million. Other major cities include Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester. The United Kingdom consists of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their capitals are London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, respectively. Apart from England, the countries have their own devolved governments, each with varying powers, but such power is delegated by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which may enact laws unilaterally altering or abolishing devolution.
The BBC is the UK's publicly funded radio, television and Internet broadcasting corporation, and is the oldest and largest broadcaster in the world. The BBC's international television news service, BBC World News, is broadcast throughout the world. The BBC World Service radio network is broadcast in 33 languages globally. Other major players in the UK media include ITV and News Corporation. London dominates the media sector in the UK: national newspapers and television and radio are largely based there, although Manchester is also a significant national media centre. Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Cardiff, are important centres of newspaper and broadcasting production in Scotland and Wales respectively. Sales of newspapers have fallen since the 1970s and in 2010, 41 per cent of people reported reading a daily national newspaper. Traditionally British newspapers have been divided into "quality", serious-minded newspapers (usually referred to as "broadsheets" because of their large size) and the more populist, "tabloid" varieties. The Daily Telegraph, a centre-right broadsheet paper, is the highest-selling of the "quality" newspapers. While The Guardian is a centre-left "quality" broadsheet and the Financial Times is the main business newspaper, printed on distinctive salmon-pink broadsheet paper. The leading "quality" daily newspaper in Scotland is The Herald.
The history of British visual art forms part of western art history. From the creation of the United Kingdom, the English school of painting is mainly notable for portraits and landscapes, and indeed portraits in landscapes. The late 18th century and the early 19th century was perhaps the most radical period in British art. Major British artists include: the Romantics William Blake, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and J.M.W. Turner; the portrait painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lucian Freud; the landscape artists Thomas Gainsborough and L. S. Lowry; the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement William Morris; the figurative painter Francis Bacon; the Pop artists Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and David Hockney; the pioneers of Conceptual art movement Art & Language; the collaborative duo Gilbert and George; the abstract artist Howard Hodgkin; and the sculptors Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Henry Moore who was regarded as the voice of British sculpture, and of British modernism in general. Important art galleries in the United Kingdom include the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern.
The United Kingdom has had a considerable influence on the history of the cinema. Britain has had a significant film industry for over a century. While many films focus on British culture, UK cinema is also marked by its interaction and competition with American and continental European cinema. The British directors Alfred Hitchcock, whose film Vertigo is considered by some critics as the best film of all time, and David Lean are among the most critically acclaimed of all-time. The post-war period was a particular high point for British filmmaking, producing The Third Man and Brief Encounter, which the British Film Institute consider the best and second-best British films respectively. Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The beginning of the 1960s saw the British New Wave style develop, influenced by its French counterpart, that sought to depict a wider strata of society in a realistic manner. Many British actors have achieved international fame and critical success. Some of the most commercially successful films of all time have been produced in the United Kingdom, including two of the highest-grossing film franchises (Harry Potter and James Bond). Ealing Studios has a claim to being the oldest continuously working film studio in the world. Despite a history of important and successful productions, the industry has often been characterised by a debate about its identity and the level of American and European influence. British producers are active in international co-productions and British actors, directors and crew feature regularly in American films. Many successful Hollywood films have been based on British people, stories or events.
By the end of the region's prehistoric period, the population is thought to have belonged, in the main, to a culture termed Insular Celtic, comprising Brittonic Britain and Gaelic Ireland. The Roman conquest, beginning in 43 AD, and the 400-year rule of southern Britain, was followed by an invasion by Germanic Anglo-Saxon settlers. In 1066, the Normans and their Breton allies invaded England from northern France and after its conquest, seized large parts of Wales, conquered much of Ireland and were invited to settle in Scotland. In 1603, the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united in a personal union when James VI, King of Scots, inherited the crowns of England and Ireland and moved his court from Edinburgh to London. The British constitution would develop on the basis of constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary system. The development of naval power (and the interest in voyages of discovery) led to the acquisition and settlement of overseas colonies, particularly in North America and the Caribbean. The British colonies in North America that broke away from Britain in the American War of Independence became the United States of America. During the 18th century, Britain was involved in the Atlantic slave trade. The term "United Kingdom" became official in 1801 when the parliaments of Britain and Ireland each passed an Act of Union, uniting the two kingdoms and creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Unchallenged at sea, British dominance was later described as Pax Britannica ("British Peace"), a period of relative peace among the Great Powers (1815–1914) during which the British Empire became the global hegemon and adopted the role of global policeman. The British Empire was expanded to include India, large parts of Africa and many other territories throughout the world. The rise of Irish nationalism, and disputes within Ireland over the terms of Irish Home Rule, led eventually to the partition of the island in 1921. Britain entered the Second World War by declaring war on Nazi Germany in 1939 after Germany had invaded Poland. Over the next three decades, most colonies of the British Empire gained their independence. When the EC became the European Union (EU) in 1992, the UK was one of the 12 founding members. The UK remained a full member of the EU until 31 January 2020.
"British literature" refers to literature associated with the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Most British literature is in the English language. In 2006, the United Kingdom was the largest publisher of books in the world. The English playwright and poet William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist of all time. Notable pre-modern and early-modern English writers include Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Malory, Sir Thomas More, John Bunyan and John Milton. In the 18th century Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson were pioneers of the modern novel. In the 19th century there followed further innovation by Jane Austen, the gothic novelist Mary Shelley, the children's writer Lewis Carroll, the Brontë sisters, the social campaigner Charles Dickens, the naturalist Thomas Hardy, the realist George Eliot, the visionary poet William Blake and Romantic poet William Wordsworth. 20th-century English writers include the science-fiction novelist H. G. Wells; the writers of children's classics Rudyard Kipling, A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton; the controversial D. H. Lawrence; the modernist Virginia Woolf; the satirist Evelyn Waugh; the prophetic novelist George Orwell; the popular novelists W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene; the crime writer Agatha Christie (the best-selling novelist of all time); Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond); the poets W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes; the fantasy writers J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling; the graphic novelists Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Scotland's contributions include the detective writer Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes), romantic literature by Sir Walter Scott, the children's writer J. M. Barrie, the epic adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson and the celebrated poet Robert Burns. Wales's most celebrated medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym is widely regarded as one of the greatest European poets of his age. The best-known of the Anglo-Welsh poets are both Thomases. Dylan Thomas became famous on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-20th century and Welsh nationalist R. S. Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.
Various styles of music are popular in the UK from the indigenous folk music of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to heavy metal. British Baroque music was heavily influenced by continental fashions. This is exemplified by George Frideric Handel, a German-born naturalised British citizen whose choral music set British taste for the next two centuries. His operas also helped Britain challenge Italy as a centre of operatic production. Composers such as Benjamin Britten, pioneer of modern British opera, developed idiosyncratic and avant-garde styles. Sir Harrison Birtwistle is one of the foremost living composers. Popular commercial music in Britain can be traced back at least as far as the seventeenth-century broadside ballad, and also encompasses brass band music and music hall. It was the emergence of British rock and roll by the early 1960s that established a viable UK popular music industry. Genres such as beat and British blues were re-exported to America by bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, in a move that came to be called the British Invasion. The Beatles are the biggest-selling and most influential band in the history of popular music. The development of blues rock helped differentiate rock and pop music, leading to the emergence of several sub-genres of rock in the 1970s. Glam rock was a particularly British genre that emphasised outrageous costumes, while the end of the decade saw the rise of punk, new wave, and post-punk bands. The influence of immigration could also be seen in the increased prominence of World music, particularly Jamaican music. Other prominent British contributors to have influenced popular music over the last 50 years include Pink Floyd, Queen, Led Zeppelin, the Bee Gees, and Elton John.
Tourism is very important to the British economy; the United Kingdom is ranked as the sixth major tourist destination in the world and London has the most international visitors of any city in the world. Transport in the United Kingdom is facilitated with road, air, rail, and water networks. The country's principal tourist destinations are London, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, York, and Canterbury. The busiest period for domestic travel in the UK is during bank holidays and the summer months, with August being the busiest. The USA (American visitors) remains the most valuable inbound market. Nevertheless, the number of travellers originating from Europe is much larger than those travelling from North America. The United Kingdom has 32 World Heritage sites.